Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Eternal Critic

I quoted a letter from Wallace Stevens in last week’s piece, which led a couple of people to ask me where I’d come across the quotation. Much as I’d like to be able to boast an intimate knowledge of Wallace Stevens’s correspondence, to the extent that I could, from memory, draw the volume in question from my dusty shelves and select the letter I required at will, I have to confess that I found the quotation in the book I was reading at the time, John Maxwell Hamilton’s Casanova Was A Book Lover, And Other Naked Truths and Provocative Curiosities about the Writing Selling and Reading of Books.

I enjoyed Hamilton’s book a lot, taking in, as it does, a range of topics including how to behave at an author’s launch party (It’s not a good idea to keep asking the author if he remembers you, apparently, especially if a) he hasn’t met you in a very long time or b) he has never met you at all); the etiquette of giving autographs (Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy and Edmund Wilson all disapproved of the practice, it seems. Edmund Wilson was particularly shirty about it.); and how to deal with criticism. This last one in particular caused me to shiver involuntarily, in part because I’d committed, on more than one occasion, what Maxwell appears to regard as a faux pas where critics are concerned: I’ve written and thanked a critic for a review.

I hasten to add that I wrote and thanked the critics in question for being particularly kind or generous spirited towards my books. I haven’t yet taken to writing letters to those who’ve merrily put the boot in. Oddly, if I had done so those letters would all have been directed towards fellow authors. Over the years, the worst reviews I’ve received have come from other writers, and usually writers operating in the same general genre as I.

One was a very established female author, regarded as a character and a bit of a laugh by those who don’t have to deal with her on an author-to-author basis, who seemed to feel that it was her moral duty at the time to slap down young male writers. As it was my first novel, her criticism hurt a little more than it would now, especially as I considered some of it rather unfair. (I was accused of simply using a guidebook to write about Louisiana which, after years of near poverty from travelling to research the novel, hurt more than somewhat.)

The others have all been young male authors, most recently an Irish writer who felt compelled to do that thing young male authors sometimes do after publishing their first book. They climb into the ring and begin taking swings at other writers perceived as competition. It doesn’t do them much good, apart from tiring them out and making them look silly, because after flailing around for a bit they eventually notice that they’re standing in the ring by themselves, the competition usually having better things to do, like writing books.

Anyway, back to Maxwell and his injunction against thanking critics. His opinion, and it is a valid one, is that critics fancy themselves as independent and, although - as Maxwell points out - book reviews tend to be favorable rather than unfavorable in the norm, reviewers don’t like it “when someone suggests they are pussycats, and they become self-conscious when a grateful author sends them a case of Chateuneuf du Pape”.

Hang on. Who’s sending cases of French reds? I only dropped them a note, and it was mainly because a) I was grateful to see my book reviewed at all and b) I genuinely appreciated the fact that they hadn’t cut me up too badly and had forgiven my mistakes. I wasn’t trying to buy future favors. The nature of book reviewing in newspapers, which means that my books are rarely reviewed by the same person twice, suggested that it was unlikely that the reviewer who received my thank you missive was going to be presented with my next book to review a year later. Also, it smacked of ingratitude not to acknowledge, in some form, their words about my book. (I’m not sure how much impact book reviews have as I suspect a large proportion of readers don’t bother with them, but it’s only common sense to take the view that good ones are of more help to a book’s prospects than bad ones.)

Yet I have to confess that if I was asked to recall what precisely they had said in their reviews to prompt my letters, I would be unable to tell you. I can’t remember the good things that were said about my books because, in some deep, dark place inside of me, I didn’t quite believe them and so they didn’t stick in my memory. I can, by contrast, probably recite sections of the bad reviews verbatim. They stung because in another deep, dark place inside of me, I believed that they might be true.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. A great many authors, if asked, would admit to always looking for the one person in the crowd who isn’t clapping, because that’s the person who has figured out they’re frauds. Most creative people possess a unhealthy degree of self-doubt, and those who don’t possess any should be avoided, to borrow an image from the current obsession with avian flu, like a chicken with a cough. In part, it’s what makes them do what they do. Writers are trying to prove something by writing, both to others and to themselves, but always gnawing at them is the feeling that they haven’t quite managed to pull it off. A dismissive review confirms all the worst things that they suspect about themselves. A good review is an indication that they’ve simply managed to pull the wool over another sucker’s eyes. Writers, it’s fair to say, have an uneasy relationship with critics.

So why send a note to a reviewer if you don’t believe what was written? Well, in part because it would be nice to think that it might possibly be true, even if it probably isn’t, but also because a good review is easier to stomach than a bad one. It’s that simple. A good review will cheer me up for, oh, maybe half an hour. A bad review will bother me for a week, or even longer, given that I can still recall the bad reviews for my first novel and that was seven years ago. Then again, I think I may be the kind of person who harbors grudges. I have kept all of the rejection slips that I received for my first book. I found them recently, along with a letter from an ex-girlfriend informing me, in no uncertain terms, of her fond hope that she would never set eyes on me again. This can’t be healthy. All of that worrying about the bad review will take days or even weeks off my life. A good review, meanwhile, is unlikely to make a major contribution towards my ultimate mortality. By sending a note, I’m basically saying: “Dear Reviewer, Thank you for not killing me. Best, John Connolly.”

But, from an objective point of view, I do agree with one of Maxwell’s other assertions: that the comparative lack of controversy in reviewing is contributing to a decline in interest among readers and a fall in the standards of reading and literacy. There are lots of reasons for this: a possible fear of offending a small pool of potential advertisers by giving negative reviews to their authors; the fact that the number of quality reviewers is not large, and is frequently boosted by authors moonlighting as reviewers who may be reluctant to offend fellow authors whom they might meet (a particular risk in genre fiction) or to risk having their own work similarly eviscerated at a later date (a kind of score settling that arguably occurs more often in academic and non-fiction reviewing than in the criticism of fiction, although there are exceptions); the unwillingness of newspapers and other media outlets to devote space to books and reading; and, perhaps, the rise of internet reviewing which, by giving the impression that everyone’s critical opinion is equally valid, has had the effect of devaluing criticism in general. The result is feature articles disguised as reviews, and insipid efforts at “balance” that do no favors to either the critic or the book in question.

Maxwell is right. We should get wound up about books. They should excite debate and argument. Whatever its flaws, real or perceived, The Da Vinci Code has managed to do just that, provoking discussion among ordinary readers. The controversy over the awarding of the most recent Man Booker Prize to John Banville’s The Sea led to something similar on a smaller scale, helped along by a damning review by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, who described The Sea as “stilted, claustrophobic and numbingly pretentious . . . (A) chilly, desiccated and pompously written book.” Way to go, Michiko! Banville, in turn, had a go at Ian McEwan’s Saturday in The New York Review of Books (“dismayingly bad”) in what was seen in some quarters as a pre-emptive strike against a potential fellow Booker nominee. Sock it to him, John!

Wouldn’t you rather read reviews like this than Keith Gessen’s review of Saturday in New York? (“(H)e has become the consummate professional novelist.”) I’m sorry, Keith, but what does that mean? Or how about Lee Aitken’s review of The Sea in People? (“Banville is a master at capturing the most fleeting memory or excruciating twinge of self-awareness with riveting accuracy. So it hardly matters that the book unfolds without much action.”) Excruciating self-awareness? Unfolds without much action? Where do I sign up, Lee? Send that baby to me today!

So I won’t write any more thank you notes to critics. I don’t want reviewers to feel beholden to me. I don’t want to contribute any further to the decline in the standards of criticism. Vibrant, reasoned, quality criticism is good for readers, good for books, and even good for authors.

Nevertheless, I would appreciate it if critics would make an exception for me, and continue to say only nice things about my books. After all, there’s a case of Chateuaneuf du Pape in it for them if they do.

This week John Read

Casanova Was A Book Lover by John Maxwell Hamilton

and listened to

3121 by Prince
Best of by Massive Attack


Jayne said...
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Jayne said...

I keep in touch with a lady who will be having her first novel published later this year, and I received an email from her this morning. I was amazed to read that people appear to be turning against her because of this. I find it appalling that unpublished novelists are making malicious comments about her and her work, without even having read it. The published authors, meanwhile (she is friends with a few crime fiction writers), have given her nothing but support and encouragement.

I can't wait for her book to be published and I hope she becomes hugely successful. It's never nice for any author to recieve criticism, but to receive it when the book hasn't even been published yet is just so wrong.

hrhg said...

Hmmm, maybe there would be more stimulating discussion if reviewers got past the idea that whether or not they liked the book is any true indication of how good a book is? How nice if a book could be judged just on merits (in clear, non-befuddling language) with no opinion thrown in (or "right back at you for giving me a bad review!" for that matter).

Maybe Matthew Arnold's Essays on Criticism should be required reading for anyone in that line of work. As long as they don't mind searching for an out of print copy, that is... ~sigh~

Tom Hyland said...

The more interesting thing about criticism is why it sometimes hurts so damned much and… to the point of almost making one sick. Criticism begins with parents and then moves into the schoolyard and sometimes into advanced academia and then into the arena of ‘everyday’.

Anger is easy and nobody ever really hurts you unless you allow it. But disappointment once voiced and from those persons you really care about(and who carry the necessary credentials)can cripple. And that is the realm of the oversensitive and once shy. It really does hurt. But then you let it go.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure it's very daunting to be so openly criticised. I would rather not be published than to be published and find out that I suck! But then again, I'd much rather read a novel than write one!
A critic is something that I could never be for a living. I'd be like Paula on American Idol- "well, I really like the color you have on..."

Banshee said...

I, for one, definitely pay attention to reviews, or at least to the blurbs printed on the books themselves. I have found a great many new writers by noticing that an author I already like has favorably reviewed a book. Some of these authors may have given good reviews merely in the hope of avoiding a bad one of their own from the subject later, but I have generally been pleased with the books I've picked up using those criteria.

I do agree as well that professional critics need to take their place in the sun again, however. The book section in my local paper seems largely dedicated to biographies of people I don't care about and what I 'lovingly' refer to as chick books. Where are my serious (or not so) history books, my crime novels, or any book that doesn't involve someone's tragic romance?!

The Home Office said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Home Office said...

I am one of the reviewers John has favored with a thank you note. I considered it an unexpected act of good manners, not an attempt to curry favor. I may, or may not, review more of John's books; I'll certainly read them, as long as the quality of the writing remains as high as the expectations he has set. The brief, polite note he sent has only created in me a generous opinion of John Connolly, the man; the writer will have earn his keep every time out.

talpianna said...

As an amateur reviewer for an SF fanzine, who reviews a variety of different books (as I once remarked, I'll review anything that doesn't actually turn on me and sink its fangs into my wrist), I've received two or three thank-you notes from authors whose books I reviewed. They were usually thanking me not so much for saying nice things about them as for actually understanding what the book was about. This would appear to be a rare talent among reviewers these days.

Sorry if that sounds a bit surly; the cats have turned the computer off four times in the last hour, and I'm FEELING surly.

GowthamJ said...

Umm... Sir what do you think about how the relationship to good and evil are portrayed in your novel The Book of Lost Things?